The Illusory Nature of the Self: Transcending the Ego

'Who am I?'

It is a question that most prefer to avoid, especially in our culture of sensory extravagance and constant distraction from thought. It seems that most people prefer to ignore this pertinent question, instead losing themselves in the activities of work and leisure to avoid any anxiety that might arise if such introspection is pursued.

A stable identity is generally achieved during adolescence, as one experiments with varying roles and temperaments among others. However, this sense of individuality does not solve the greater riddle. When asking this question 'Who am I?', what exactly is this 'I' to begin with? Does it even exist?

The Cartesian logic of 'Cogito ergo sum' is inherently faulty; as Friedrich Nietzsche indicated, it would be more precise to declare 'There is thinking' or 'It thinks', considering that the notion 'I think, therefore I am' presupposes the existence of an 'I'.

To avoid, however, the subsequent crisis and nihilistic despair the existentialists face, it is necessary to turn to traditional sources of wisdom. Every human being carries a sense of self, the 'I-am-ness' as described in Patañjali's Yoga Sutras, but delving into this scripture and other traditional writings of both East and West reveals there is a deeper mystery concerning the individual.

The Cosmic Dream

As a creation of the Supreme Cosmic Spirit, a human being's existence is dependent on a higher reality. After all, how can a creature hold a greater reality than its uncreated Creator? Take for example the works of a writer or an artist: fictional characters cannot hold the same degree of reality as their human creator, and the same principle holds for us humans as emanations from the eternal Source.

To put it simply, we are all dream characters in the mind of God.

As explained in the Bhagavad Gita (9-6,5):

''Look at My divine yogic power. Although I am the maintainer of all living beings and Myself being the creator of all entities, I am not situated in them. Just as the mighty wind moving everywhere rests always in space, similarly being born of My will, know that all beings are situated in Me.''
The Divine Reality is hidden from us as long as our imprisoning sense of separation remains locked in place by our individuality, our sense of self.

As William Blake wrote,

'If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it
is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.'
Transcending the ego and realizing its illusory nature is the first step of initiation into the greater mysteries of the Divine. This can be realized through a variety of practices including meditation, contemplative prayer, chanting, drumming, sleep deprivation, fasting, or dance, such as whirling practiced by Sufi Dervishes of Islamic esoterism.

The 13th century Sufi poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī calls others to 'Die before you die' in order to realize the Divine Reality:

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You're covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you've died.
Your old life was a frantic running
from silence.

The speechless full moon
comes out now.

(The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks translation, 1997)

Transcending the self and realizing Oneness with all existence is often compared to waves on the surface of the sea, as the following Buddhist parable taken from Zen Speaks illustrates:

Guatama Buddha instructed his disciple Ananda,

''have you ever stood on the seashore and watched the waves rise and fall on the surface of the sea? Birthlessness and deathlessness are like the water. Birth and death are like the waves. Ananda, there are long waves and short waves, high waves and low waves. Waves rise and fall, but the water remains. Without water, there could be no waves. The waves return to water. Waves are water, water is waves. Though the waves may rise and pass away, if they understand that they themselves are the water, they will transcend notions of birth and death. They will not worry, fear, or suffer because of birth and death." (Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991)

Just as waves appear separate from the sea, we appear to be separate selves from the world around us, but ultimately we are all made from the same substance of creation and share a common root of existence.

The understanding of Oneness comes not by logical reasoning or an abstract conceptualization. The knowledge can only be gained by direct experience, which is sought through spiritual practice. States of mystical union are incapable of being expressed in words, which is why the use of metaphor is so prevalent in all spiritual traditions. When the false self dissolves, the world is seen as it truly is, as though one has just waken from a lifelong dream, washing away all past sorrows and allowing the pure bliss of being to shine through unhindered.

As Rumi said,

'This place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like
dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief.'

Modern Complications

Besides resulting from spiritual practices, the experience of a loss of self can seemingly come about on its own accord and often occurs just after waking from sleep or even at the most unexpected times during ordinary activities.

However, it is this spontaneous realization that the self is illusory that frequently causes fits of panic attacks in people from all walks of life. Instead of enjoying the sublime bliss of union with the ocean of pure being, these experiences are often devastating to an individual. The old familiar world falls away as the veil of reality is lifted, leaving the mind tumbling down an infinite abyss of terror. It is unfortunate that in our secular modern society, these potentially transformative experiences are understood to be nothing more than a psychological 'disorder', termed depersonalization by psychologists. What is often missed in terms of psychological 'treatment' is that this anxiety-invoking condition can be overcome if the sufferer turns to the path of spiritual purification of body, mind and soul, whereby the same sensation of losing the sense of self begins to be accompanied by blissful liberation, instead of stark terror.

Another modern complication arises from the increasing use of psychedelics in order to intentionally bring about 'ego death'. Traditionally, a native shaman might work with naturally occuring plant products like Ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, yopo, or cannabis in order to heal a patient, as the shaman would rise above ego awareness and gain astral insights into the subtle causes of a disease.

By contrast, in a modern setting both natural and chemical psychedelics are frequently used merely for recreation, oftentimes resulting in horrifying episodes for the uninitiated. However, there are some people who take psychedelics in an earnest attempt at uncovering spiritual knowledge, but the pitfalls in this far outweigh any benefits, as the potential for attracting negative forces to oneself are greater when the requisite mental discipline as means of protection is not taken, as with traditional meditative practices. There is also the problem of dependence on a substance for spiritual insight, which becomes a sort of crutch to a genuine seeker, not to mention the false sense of accomplishment oftentimes paired with arrogance for those who pursue such means.

The use of psychedelics is best to be avoided altogether, as the Himalayan yogi Swami Rama warned,

'For those who have not practiced austerities and trained their minds, psychedelics are harmful. They might damage the nervous system and especially disturb the finer channels of energy (nadis). Hallucinations occur, and one may become psychotic. I have examined the effects of drugs on people who have used them and have not found any spiritual symptoms in their behavior. They might have an unusual experience, but what good is that experience which has an adverse effect and a harmful reaction later on? A prolonged subtle depression is a common symptom of these drugs if the mind is not prepared and dietary habits are not carefully observed...Those who are not psychologically prepared will have negative experiences either when they ingest the intoxicant or later. Those who are prepared don't need such drugs.' (Living with the Himalayan Masters, 1978)

Apart from the misuse of psychedelics, there is another modern danger when embarking on the spiritual journey. For various reasons, a spiritual seeker is often at a very fragile time in his or her life, and any experience of ego death often heightens the sense of uncertainty and borderline sanity, giving rise to the desperate need of a guide. However, considering the exploitation and distortion of traditional practices these days, the possibility of finding a genuine spiritual teacher in the modern world is almost nil. The host of false gurus preaching enlightenment to the masses often wear the guise of selfless revelators of truth, but in reality form a parasitic relationship with their followers, spewing forth distorted teachings in exchange for wealth and admiration (Shri Mataji, Ramtha, Jasmuheen, and Andrew Cohen, to name a few). And even traditional religious institutions of both East and West have lost touch with the spiritual truths that founded them, having given way to blind fundamentalism and materialistic pursuits. In this dark age, the only security lies with reliance on ancient teachings and Divine guidance by means of Grace. Seeking truth solely from another human more than often leaves one susceptible to deception, just as relying solely on oneself for guidance can lead one astray from the true path. To evade misguidance from the egoic self or deceptive forces from this world and beyond, it is helpful to practice prayer and meditation each day, remaining open to inspiration and guidance from Divine sources.

Entering the Sea

Transcending the ego is not the final goal of the spiritual path; it is only the means of venturing further toward the supreme goal of union with the Divine Principle. And not every encounter with ego death can be considered a truly spiritual experience, as the same sensation occurs during panic attacks or 'bad trips' from the use of psychedelics. Earth-based, pantheistic practices tend to consider discarding individuality and diving into the ocean of collective consciousness to be the final goal (see the previous article The Inverted Spirituality of Avatar). Whereas, in truly transcendent traditions such as Buddhism, a practitioner who frees himself of his identity is considered to have achieved only the first stage in reaching Enlightenment and becomes a Srotāpanna, or 'stream-enterer'; there is more to accomplish on the journey and many dangers to avoid along the way of ascension. As René Guénon explains in his Vedic commentary, Man & His Becoming According to the Vedanta, in the yogic path of Hinduism, the ultimate goal is to cross the 'lower waters' of the collective, which belong to the realm of ever-changing manifestation, transient forms in a perpetual state of becoming, and to reach the 'upper waters' of the formless, changeless Absolute. The initiate sheds his illusory lower self of the ego, crosses the 'sea of passions' (the astral plane) and ascends to the unmanifest realm, where he finally finds repose. As found in the Bhagavad Gita:

'I am the ultimate goal, the maintainer, the Lord, the witness, the abode, the shelter, the unselfish friend, the origin, the end (annihilation), the resting place, the basis of everything, and the imperishable, eternal seed (cause) of this universe.' 9-18

Revelation 3:12 alludes to the final goal as well, with the individual coming to eternal rest with the Father:

'Him that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out.'

Oftentimes after undergoing a profound, reality-shifting experience, one returns to the ordinary state of reality feeling a great sense of accomplishment, feeling privileged to have gained such esoteric insights into the nature of reality and the self, only to resume ever more egoic attitudes of superiority over others and a secret prideful esteem of the self, despite having just realized its illusory nature! Some develop an even more distorted view, that of solipsism, which is the belief that only the self is real and all others are illusions. Trent Reznor's song 'Only' is an example of this mentality, with lyrics such as 'There is no you, there is only me.'

Along with the errors of egotism, solipsism, and believing oneself to have reached the final goal before attaining full Enlightenment, there are many other pitfalls on the journey to be wary of. As Buddha admonished, there are two errors on the spiritual path: not starting the journey, and not attaining the final goal. The dangers involved in pursuing higher realities are best overcome by means of guidance from above, including those who have gone before us into the unseen.

But what can be said of those perfected beings who upon physical death, shed their individuality and ascend to the unmanifest realm and unite with Godhead? It is told that these beings are not 'annihilated' but rather 'transformed'. Guénon explains,

'In order to bring out the nature of this 'transformation' more vividly, compare it to the disappearance of water sprinkled upon a burning hot stone. This water is in fact 'transformed' on contact with the stone, at least in the relative sense that it has lost its visible form (though not all form, since it clearly continues to belong to the corporeal order), without however its being possible to say on that account that it has been absorbed by the stone, since, actually, it has evaporated into the atmosphere, where it remains in a state imperceptible to sight. Similarly, the being is in no wise 'absorbed' on obtaining 'Deliverance', although it may seem so from the point of view of manifestation, whence the 'transformation' appears as a 'destruction'; viewed from the standpoint of absolute reality, which alone remains for it, the being is on the
contrary dilated beyond all limit, if one may use such an expression (which exactly translates the symbolism of steam from water spreading itself indefinitely through the atmosphere), since it has effectively realized the fullness of its possibilities.' (Man & His Becoming According to the Vedanta, 1925)

Compare with Rumi:

'When our guide and those who are cherished by us leave and disappear, they are
not annihilated. They are like stars that vanish into the light of the Sun of
Reality. They exist by their essence and are made invisible by their

The Illusory Self

When discussing such a sensitive topic such as identity and the ego, it is essential to clarify what is meant when saying that the self is empty and illusory.

A teacher of the Tibetan tradition, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, explains:

'Without understanding emptiness it is difficult to cut the root of the egoic self and to find liberation from its boundaries.

However, when we read about the spiritual journey we also read about self-liberation and self-realization. And we certainly seem to be a self. We can argue to convince others that we do not have a self, but when our life is threatened or something is taken from us, the self that we claim does not exist can become quite afraid or upset.

According to Bön-Buddhism, the conventional self does exist. Otherwise no one could create karma, suffer, and find liberation. It is the inherent self that does not exist. Lack of an inherent self means that there is no core discrete entity that is unchanging throughout time. Though the nature of mind does not change, it should not be confused with a discrete entity, a "self," a little bit of indestructible awareness that is "me." The nature of mind is not an individual's possession and is not an individual. It is the nature of sentience itself and is the same for all sentient beings.' (The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep, 1998)

Although a seeming paradox, our everyday self is indeed 'real', despite the reality of 'no-self' experienced in an egoless state. Both are valid realms of experience and therefore both encompass their own degree of reality. Sometimes, a real crisis emerges for an individual upon returning to the ordinary world after having melted into the Divine ocean. The return to the mundane can leave one bewildered and even on the verge of losing sanity, due to the difficulty of reconciling the two realities. 'How can I be real, if I have just experienced that this 'I' is an illusion?' One must come to understand that higher states of truth do not render lower modes of being invalid. Because we experience ourselves and our everyday reality as a solid, genuine world, and live through all its joys and sorrows, the experience can never be said to be unreal, only illusory, as transcending the ordinary self and its ordinary world gives way to a profoundly new mode of experience. Rumi compares the soul to a dirty mirror, that when polished, can reflect the clear light of the Source, revealing the Oneness and Divine presence in all of manifestation.

As Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche continues, referring to the metaphor of reflections in a mirror:

'If we focus on the reflections, we can say there is this reflection and that other reflection, pointing to two different images. They grow larger and smaller, come and go, and we can follow them around in the mirror as if they were separate beings. They are like the conventional self. However, the reflections are not discrete entities, they are a play of light, unsubstanced illusions in the empty luminosity of the mirror. They exist as separate entities only through conceptualizing them as such. The reflections are a manifestation of the nature of the mirror, just as the conventional self is a manifestation that arises from, abides in, and dissolves back into the empty limpidity of the base of existence, kunzhi.'

Identifying ourselves as a separate ego, the lower self, has given rise to our lifelong experience of the world of duality and separation from awareness of the Divine presence. Once the veil is lifted, the world is suddenly transformed, and the Kingdom of God is revealed right here, in every object and being we encounter. The world is seen just as Christ taught in Luke 17:20-21

'The coming of the kingdom of God does not admit of observation and there will
be no one to say, ''Look, it is here! Look, it is there!'' For look, the kingdom
of God is within you.'

This experience is often fleeting, lasting only a few moments or even a number of days until individuality is restored and one returns once again to the ordinary world of relativity, perceiving everything in terms of self and others as before. It takes a steady discipline and constant vigilance awaiting the Divine touch to descend and reawaken us from our earthly slumber. After all, it is better to learn to die willingly to the Spirit now while incarnate in physical bodies, rather than waiting until the body's last breath and entering the other world unprepared.


In this modern age of hyper-egotism, we find an alarming lack of genuine connection and concern for others. Traditional values of compassion have been replaced by pathological individuality, disregarding the fostering of community and seeking solely material desires and selfish aims. Both secular institutions and religious traditions have become divorced from the notion of receiving direct experience of the Divine Reality, often scoffing those who admit to such experiences.

One need only turn within and examine that which we have ignored the most: our true nature.

Such a being who ventures forth into the unknown not only uncovers the key to end all self-inflicted suffering, but also brings forth spiritual gifts to those who are not yet self-realized. Upon returning to the ordinary world, one who has seen beyond often feels a profound compulsion to aid others, unburdening their sorrows with an attempt to point the way out of their prison. Of course, perfection of a being is never realized overnight; however, one who becomes just a little more selfless and focused on others provides a real glimmer of light in a world full of darkness.

The perennial wisdom of the ages is available to anyone who approaches the threshold with sincere intention and requisite preparation. Even in this age of spiritual ignorance, there is still the possibility of realizing the Divine Reality right here and now. It is a matter of relinquishing the limited egoic self and surrendering to the Divine Will, allowing blissful truth to radiate through our very being and coming to aid those in most need of guidance.
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